As the Edinburgh International Festival and its Fringe celebrate their 70th anniversaries, Broadway Baby’s James T. Harding takes a look at how they’ve inspired a plethora of literary events in counterpoint to the Edinburgh International Book Festival (EIBF).
This year the programme is at its post expansive, inclusive and genre bending
The Edinburgh International Book Festival launched in ‘83 with a sensible 30 meet the author-type events. These days, under the directorship of Nick Barley, it’s a towering figure of Edinburgh’s festival landscape with over 800 events year. Inspired by it’s theatrical older brother the Edinburgh International Festival, the EIBF has spawned a variety of unofficial offshoots around the city - its own fringe, if you will.
Although a (famously controversial) International Writers Conference took place as part of the 1962 EIF, it was in 2003 that something you could call a book fringe took off in the form of Thirsty Lunches, a series of boozy lunchtime book events which Stuart Kelly, Peter Burnett and Sean Bradley organised for three years.
‘We all felt slightly excluded from the Book Festival,’ reminisces Stuart Kelly, who has since become one of their regular event chairs. ‘It was time to shake things up.’
Kelly laughs as he remembers being chased away from Charlotte Square when he attempted to hand out his flyers there. ‘We were doing it out of pure mischief. It was a piece of cheek from beginning to end.’
This anarchic spirit is reflected in the 2004 programme, which promised, among other things, that Scarlett Thomas’s latest novel would be introduced by her dog. One of the events, Alas Poor Doric with John Aberdein and Brent Hodgson, boasted ‘Scotland’s only Doric pornographer dusts off the antimacassars for a puckle bawdy verses, plus a Kiwi who only writes in medieval Scots - an event that makes more sense than you could possible imagine.’
It was quite a while later in 2009 that an event series began explicitly billing itself as a fringe for books: the Book Fringe at Word Power Books. Organised by the independent bookshop proprietor Elaine Henry, it took a more serious tone than Thirsty Lunches, making a point of programming radical political writers alongside established authors and comedians.
Henry’s radical spirit lives on in today’s Book Fringe, which features events like Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race with Reni Eddo-Lodge and Violence of Austerity with Sarah Glynn alongside big names like Will Self, Fringe favourites like Glenn Chandler, and Scottish poetry maven Rachel McCrum.
Organiser Mairi Oliver says this year is ‘aimed at championing independent bookshops, publishers and voices from beyond the mainstream. Working with Golden Hare Books we focused on curating a festival that reflected our readerships and actually celebrated 'the fringes' by covering subjects such as climate change, austerity, structural racism, sexism in science and much more.’
Over the road on South Bridge, meanwhile, Blackwell’s bookshop continues its Writers at the Fringe series—now in its tenth year. Of particular note are Scottish writers Kaite Welsh and Ever Dundas, whose debut novels were well received this year.
In recent years, the official Fringe programme has also seen an increased number of literary events, with spoken-word poetry at the vanguard. Some of the best performers each year will take part in the BBC Edinburgh Fringe Slam, now organised by its former champion Sophia Walker. She comments: ‘It feels like there's never been a more important year for us to go back to the founding ideals of the Fringe, to that idea of welcoming in the world.
‘The chance poetry brings for each of us to speak for ourselves, to be truly heard, to feel represented is never more important than at a time where so many would want us to feel divided, quieted, minimised. The Fringe, and indeed poetry, are both about coming together, exploring together, having our ideas challenged and our minds expanded.’
The EIBF itself, however, is not to be outdone. This year the programme is at its most expansive, inclusive and genre bending. Highlights include a partnership with the Royal Lyceum Theatre to create dramatic presentations of some of the most talked-about Scottish books, and the late-night Unbound strand which invites Edinburgh stalwarts such as Flint & Pitch, Neu! Reekie!, Shoreline of Infinity and Dive Queer Party into Charlotte Square.
Of these, Dive Queer Party’s Homage and The Last Night on Earth promise particularly enjoyable evenings. ‘Dive’s ethos draws a lot on the spirit of ’47 and the belief that art has the power to make change and provide hope and understanding, especially in the most challenging times,’ said Miss Annabel Sings and Agent Cooper (depicted), collectively known as the Annabelz.
‘Despite massive leaps forward in recent years there have also been tragic steps back for LGBT rights around the world, so we want to rally those on stage and in the audience to stand up against hate and celebrate tolerance and diversity. So wash your best wig, throw on some glitter and join us as we conga our way into a brave new world!’
Back in 1947 when eight theatre companies who weren’t in the official EIF programme decided to put on shows anyway, they could have had no idea they were to be the birth of Edinburgh’s famous Fringe, and through that the pitch-up-and-do-it inspiration for any number of fringe events across borders and genres. First theatre, then comedy, now books - I can’t wait to see where the fringe spirit flies next.
Broadway Baby’s coverage of Fringe spoken word is here: http://broadwaybaby.com/genre/Spoken+Word
The full programme for the Lighthouse/Golden Hare Book Fringe is at: www.facebook.com/bookfringe.
Blackwell’s Writers at the Fringe series: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/blackwells-writers-at-the-fringe-tickets-33422841619